By Cody Fitzpatrick and Richard Walton
In the early evening of the first Friday in April, TRANS AM PHX feels more like a construction zone than an art gallery — or, rather, it feels like an art gallery still under construction.
The wall on the right side of the entrance is an already-completed masterpiece. Rows and columns of paintings of all proportions and sizes spaced tightly together turn the wall into a mosaic in and of itself. The pieces are all from the personal collection of TRANS AM’s owners, Gabe Hernandez and Bradford Still, two quirky art enthusiasts on a quest to create the physical space of their dreams.
At the wall to the left of the entrance, Gilbert-based artist Francesca Bessett stands on a ladder to hammer the hooks that will hold the works for her soon-to-start show. The rest of the room comprises a coffee shop. The menu is made of slips of paper taped to a skinny metal post. The items are written out in black marker in too-small-to-easily-read letters. The slips have serrated edges, as if they were cut by those pattern scissors found in elementary school classrooms.
*hummus stuffed celery
*stuffed avocado with your choice: HUMMUS, WALNUT CHEESE, PICO de GALLO”
There isn’t much seating, which makes sense because TRANS AM doubles, triples, and quadruples as a space, so more standing room is beneficial. The space is therefore an art gallery, a coffee shop, a music venue and, oh, a library.
Old books sit on dedicated library shelves and are scattered around the room. Hernandez and Still seek out unusual titles such as “Your Handwriting Can Change Your Life,” “The Politics of Ecstasy” and “Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk.”
The location, 1506 NW Grand Ave., is the former home of the similarly minded music-and-art setting Trunk Space, which occupied the building for 12 years.
As she hangs her paintings, Bessett gives a rundown on each.
First, a self-portrait: Bessett begins to explain its significance, but, within seconds, her explanation sidetracks into an art history lesson about Vincent van Gogh and how the series of self-portraits painted throughout his life influenced the evolution of his style.
“I want to do one once a year and kind of see myself age through my paintings,” Bessett, 31, says.
Bessett doesn’t have a degree in art; she got discouraged early on in college. But she does teach art classes — with a twist. She’s the owner of Painting with Canvas. “It’s a paint-and-sip,” she said. “You go to different restaurants and eat and drink while you paint.”
On the left of her self-portrait is a painting of her alter ego Tilda, a character she says would drink a martini alone in a bar.
To the right is one of her boyfriend, or “My Lumberjack,” because he’s “always building stuff.” His hat has a camera on it because he’s a photographer.
One spot farther down: “That’s myself.”
After wanting to do figure paintings but being unable to find a real-life subject, Bessett decided to paint herself. “When I’m a grandma, I can look back and be proud of that, right?” she said.
Bessett then fondly remembered how cooperative her friend Jessica was during her painting, the one she pointed out following her own.
The focus of Bessett’s art, at least recently, has been the people who are close to her in real life, which often means she needs those people to take the time to model for her.
When I point out that, to me, the painting looks like Hillary Clinton, the artist doesn’t object.
It becomes apparent to me that Bessett has a deep emotional connection to her work, and that what she’s doing here is putting them up for sale. I learn quickly that painting isn’t like other creative pursuits; commercial success means the artist doesn’t get to keep her creations anymore.
“I cry every time,” Bessett said.
For better or for worse, she didn’t have to part with any originals on the exhibit’s opening night, just prints.
“This guy,” she says as she continues down the line, “is probably my favorite painting I’ve done. His name is Marc Norman, and he does music throughout the Valley. He’s insane. He’s, like, the biggest character you’ll ever meet.”
Bessett said the next day that someone asked her about buying it, “but that one was, uhh, not for sale,” she laughed.
Staying in the crazy realm, her penultimate portrait is a fusion of her friend and the Cynthia doll from the cartoon “Rugrats.”
“This is my friend Nicole,” Bessett says of the doll-human hybrid. “She’s a little crazy. She’s a little bit of her own character.”
Last is the only non-human element of the show: a picture of her boyfriend’s dog, Bonnie.
“I do these paint-your-pet classes,” Bessett says. “People will send in pictures of their pets, and I pre-draw them on the canvas and we paint them at the class. That’s the one I did, and I just love it. She is just the sweetest dog ever.”
The classes Bessett teaches have the goal of counterbalancing the bad experiences that are so common in traditional art classes. She believes that teachers and museums set expectations of perfection, and that many people need a more fun approach.
“Every class I preface, ‘It’s going to go through an ugly phase, just like we all did in life, but we slowly mature and become our masterpiece.’”
Bessett’s exhibit will be up in the building for the whole month of April.
TRANS AM itself, which has been open for three weeks, is understandably still going through its own growing phase. But patrons are already starting to find a community there.
“You want a business like this to do really well so you want to promote and and tell your friends about it,” repeat customer Leslie Barakat said. “But you’re also like, ‘I don’t want it to be super popular, because then it won’t be this wonderful laid-back vibe.’”